One of the more heartening aspects of 2023 theatregoing has been the increased prominence of the elderly, the infirm and the habitually invisible on our stages. Whether it be an RSC As You Like It cast with older actors, Ian McKellen and Roger Allam playing melancholy dog-owners forming a bond in Frank and Percy or Richard Bean’s To Have and To Hold, entertainingly evoking a long-married couple, it feels as if the culture is responding to the reality of an ageing population.
The arrival at the Dorfman of Annie Baker’s latest play, co-produced with the off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, continues that trend, just as it also furthers the National’s relationship with one of America’s leading playwrights.
Those who’ve caught Baker’s work at the NT in the past – an exposure that began with The Flick, her radically unhurried depiction of lowly cinema-workers – will know a little what to expect: conversation so natural-sounding in its casual oddity we might be eavesdropping on real-life, senses sharpened, and a savouring of the seeming banal that works like a conjuring trick, stealth-springing a quality of rare profundity.
Being of an advanced age isn’t, it must be said, the only defining characteristic of the predominantly female patients gathering, in dribs and drabs and across small leaps of time, on sun-loungers in a patio area belonging to a Californian health clinic. As she herself registers, at 47, Sofi (a rueful yet vaguely hopeful Christina Kirk) is younger than her collocutors, but her body is letting her down, pain a debilitating constant, something that has pushed her marriage to breaking-point.
We first find her trying to focus on a copy of Daniel Deronda, but constantly quizzed by the daffy, doddery Eileen (Marylouise Burke), the accent initially on the comedy of strangers seeking rest interacting in a shared space.
As the others – Mia Katigbak’s dignified Yvette, Kristine Nielsen’s inquisitive Ginnie and Brenda Pressley’s sage Elaine – shuffle into the frame, each with their aches, pains, medical traumas and sad clinging faith in the fasting regime (with faddish dietary interventions too) that leaves them woozy, a sort of sisterhood emerges. That sharpens into understated drollery of a sexual sort with the arrival of an aloof, bare-chested finance man (Pete Simpson’s impassive Nelson), who might be their answer to Magic Mike given the surreptitious scrutiny he gets.
Baker teases us with the prospect of a romantic – or raunchy – twist, the possibility of carnality lunged-at as an improvised remedy, but then moves on into terrain more stoical, stirring and subtly complex. These women aren’t so much raging against the dying of the light (and it gets very tenebrous at times) as ruminating on existential evanescence. “If pain doesn’t mean anything it’s boring… if it means anything at all then I don’t know if I can bear it,” Sofi confides to Eileen. “I think every time a group of people are in a room talking it’s a social and a political event,” Baker has said. Point proved. James Macdonald directs, patiently and beautifully.
Until Jan 13. Tickets: 020 3989 5455; nationaltheatre.org.uk